There’s a video on Mark Thomas‘ website featuring the rather jolly sight of people singing in an Apple store. It seems remarkable that – considering this was a protest against Apple’s tax arrangements – it took staff around six or seven minutes to chuck them out.
“The thing is it’s very hard to identify who exactly is causing the problem,” notes comedian/activist Thomas who, of course, was the instigator. “We’d given out songsheets and the people singing could be customers thinking it was in-store entertainment so if you start chucking people out you’re on to a hiding to nothing. And also I told everyone to send the security to me and explain that I was the organiser. I think confusion works to our advantage,” he chuckles.
This was just one of his 100 Acts of Minor Dissent which forms the basis of his latest show (the acts range from minor mischief making and poking fun to tackling major issues). The tour began its run in Edinburgh and one of Thomas’ largest and favourite acts so far was a gay rights protest outside the Russian consulate there.
“550 people shut the street down. The wonderful thing about it was that the street was full of joy and dissent, and it was a little bit naughty. But when people got up and gave testimony of how people they knew have been killed in homophobic attacks the street was full of compassion and love and that’s a really amazing thing.”
For Thomas, one of the big joys of the show is getting people involved. Though many of his previous shows lead to audience members signing up to his mailing list and joining him in a protest somewhere, this one is particularly interactive.
“We did one thing last night which is a… I can’t explain the full thing, but I gave a woman a little plastic bag and asked her to fill it up with soil in the interval. Then every now and again in the first half I’d finish something then ask her, are you sure you’re ok? And she’d go, ‘yep’. She went and did it in the interval and at the start of the second half I go and collect this thing and then we carry on. Then about ten minutes before the end I explain what it’s about. And I love the fact that physically someone goes outside the theatre and does something. On a really, really basic level, that’s what the show’s about.”
Thomas started off as a relatively regular stand-up on the circuit though his first gig, as he always tells it, was in, of all places, the pulpit when he was a child – his father was a preacher. But a passion for politics and strong sense of the injustice in the world, not to mention a liking for mischief, combined to form the kind of shows he’s been performing for much of the last couple of decades.
That said, he did take time out last year to perform a show that was much more personal. Bravo Figaro documented the story of how he put on an opera show for his ailing opera-loving father in his living room. It’s an intriguing and moving tale as Thomas had a very difficult relationship with his father; politically they were at opposite ends of the scale and his Dad was “quick with his fists” with the family.
“My Dad and I had a very problematic relationship, and some people found it harder than others to understand that you could actually have had a relationship that was violent with someone but also love them. I think the interesting thing is that you can hold so many contradictory feelings on the same person. I think that’s one of the nice things about getting older that I find it easier to hold those things. My Dad died on the morning of the broadcast of the show on Radio 4, he died an inveterate heckler. The ultimate heckle, to die on the morning of the broadcast. Innate timing. I performed the show three times after he died and it was so hard, it was the hardest thing I’ve done, I just couldn’t do it anymore. So in a way this show, 100 Acts, is a response to that and the response is, I’m going to have a lot of fun. It’s partly having been away from the political activism for a year and in part a, c’mon, let’s fucking have this!”
More info: Mark Thomas performs 100 Acts of Minor Dissent on 9/10 October, The Dancehouse, Manchester; 19 October, The Stand, Newcastle; 22 October, Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool; 23 October, Southport Comedy Festival; 26 October, Hull Truck Theatre; 19 November, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds; 23 November, Junction, Goole; 26 November, Waterside Arts Centre, Sale; 30 November, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield; 1 December, Memorial Hall, Sheffield; 4 December, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge; 11 December, Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal; 12 December, Dukes, Lancaster; 13 December, The Forum, Northallerton.
Main image: Steve Ullathorne